Saturday, December 27, 2014

Review: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Published: Atlantic Monthly Press/William Morrow & Co. (2008)
Awards Nominated: British Science Fiction Association, Campbell Memorial, Arthur C. Clarke, and Hugo Awards
Awards: Won: Locus SF Award
The Book:
“On the unusual but strangely familiar planet of Arbre, those who study science and math generally live in monastery-like communities that are isolated from the saecular world. Every year, decade, century, and millennium, gates open to allow different groups of these scholars to mingle with the outside world for ten days. Fraa Erasmas is a member of the Decenarian math, whose gates open once each decade. 
During the first opening since he was collected as a child, Erasmas and his peers notice certain hints that something unusual is on the horizon.  Though their information is limited, they begin to apply their reasoning skills to determine what truth lies behind the things that they are capable of observing.  It soon becomes clear that their world is at the cusp of a cataclysmic change, and that he and his friends are going to be pulled right into the center of it all.” ~Allie
I bought Anathem because the e-book was on sale, and because I usually enjoy Neal Stephenson’s novels.  I had also decided that this would be a good choice for the “I just HAVE to read more of that author” Challenge, in which I am participating. It’s also the first book I’ve read for Stainless Steel Droppings’s Sci-Fi Experience.  When I first started reading, I thought I might have picked a little too ambitious a book for a holiday season in which I was already exhausted.  However, I’m really glad I stuck with this one to the end!   
My Thoughts:
Arbre is a really immersive world, and I especially loved the details about life in the concents, the monastery-like communities where the scientists live.  There were a lot of little interesting touches, such as multi-plant-species ‘tangle’ agriculture and library grapes, which contain the gene sequences for all varietals.  Of course, with the existence of grapes and wine, you can see that there are a lot of similarities between Arbre and our world.  There are actually story-related reasons for this, but I appreciated how it gave the reader a kind of handle to understand the world and its history.  Earth languages (especially French) are also used as a basis for creating a lot of the new vocabulary used by the characters, and I thought this really helped to keep the meanings clear. I enjoyed how Arbre was unusual enough to be intriguing but familiar enough to not be confusing.
I also loved that the story was basically about people in academia, and that it featured an average academic (i.e. not a genius).  The story followed Fraa Erasmas and his fellow fraas and suurs from the Concent of Saunt Edhar. Erasmas has a pretty apolitical view of the world, and generally refers to the ‘Saecular Power’ as a monolith. I enjoyed the focus on the communities and relationships within the ‘mathic world’, and most especially that between Erasmas, his closest friends, and his mentor Orolo.  I found it refreshing that the concents were co-ed, and that they did not forbid romantic relationships.  There is a bit of romance in the story for Erasmas, but relationships (and, honestly, characterization) have a lower priority in the story than the events and discussions that are changing their world.
While the story follows Erasmas’s adventures across Arbre and beyond, I think the core of the story revolves around two opposing philosophical ideas. In general, it is the argument of whether words have inherent meaning, or whether they are only symbols that we assign meaning. The first position leads to the idea that words refer to an ideal form, which exists in an idealized universe (see Platonic Ideal/Form). This ties in to the more physical idea of multiple universes (‘polycosmic’ theory), where (in the simplest case) each cosmos could be closer to or farther from the ideal universe.  There are also pretty interesting explanations for the nature of consciousness, if you take interference from multiple cosmos into account. I think it’s pretty impressive that Stephenson has managed to craft a story around this clash of ideas, and one that I felt was really engaging.
I was quickly drawn in by Erasmas’s journey from his small concent to the center of a dramatic change to the infrastructure of his entire world.  There were many exciting events along the way, such as his dangerous crossing of the pole and the events at Ecba.  However, a lot of the story also involves Erasmas discussing ideas and information with his peers and mentors, and constructing their picture of what is happening. I really enjoyed seeing how much they could figure out from just a little information.  Of course, there are also a lot of dialogues about ideal forms, the nature of consciousness, and polycosmic theory. These conversations are pretty long and frequent, so I think that a reader who doesn’t enjoy them would have a hard time getting into the story.  I thought that all the discussions helped to build up the foundation for the conclusion to make sense, and I enjoyed seeing how things might change for Arbre in the future.
My Rating: 5/5

I think Anathem may be my new favorite novel by Neal Stephenson.  The planet of Arbre was fascinating, and its similarities to our world kept it easily accessible.  I enjoyed the wordplay vocabulary and small creative touches that made the world unique.  The characters may not have been a major focus of the story, but I thought they were well enough developed to be emotionally engaging.  The real heart of the story is in philosophical ideas pertaining to ideal forms, the nature of consciousness, and multiple universes, and how these ideas would be involved in a very unusual first contact scenario.  I felt like there was enough action to move the story along, though the novel was also definitely heavy on interesting discussions and explanations.  I loved this book, and am happily anticipating reading more Stephenson in the future! 

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